Ambassador: Obama, EU can reach out to Islam

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President Barack Obama together with the EU can help to heal relations between the Judaeo-Christian world and Islam, John Bruton, former Irish Taoiseach and current EU Ambassador to the USA, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Former Irish Taoiseach John Bruton is currently the EU’s ambassador to the USA.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

Ambassador Bruton, seen from your position, what does the Obama presidency mean for the EU and transatlantic relations? 

It means, first of all, that we have a huge opportunity to repair the breakdown in relations that has taken place between the Judaeo-Christian world – encompassing Europe and the US – and the world of Islam. 

Barack Husein Obama’s middle name and his ancestry in Kenya is a huge asset for the world, given that he has been freely elected in an exhaustive, and exhausting, campaign. I think the boost that this gives to the image of the US in the world is a potential lever for all of us to change this relationship, which has unfortunately not been as good as it should have been for the last 50 or even 70 years. 

This breakdown was at the root of 9-11 and the problems we are continuing to see in Gaza, in a conflict that simply should not be happening at this stage. One of the great failures of the 20th Century has been the failure to find a resolution to the relationship between Jews, Christians and Muslims in Palestine. 

But do you believe Obama will seek a stronger transatlantic relationship in addressing this enormous global issue? 

Yes. I think we have to approach it like this: where problems may be difficult to solve on their own, if you can create a linked-up context, it may be possible to solve them together. 

For example, there is clearly a link between relations with Syria and the prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Also, the position vis-à-vis Iran, where since 1979 the US has not been conducting normal diplomacy, is linked to the issue of nuclear non-proliferation, which in turned is linked to the US budget – where last year 52 billion USD was spent on new nuclear weapons capacity – and thereby, the economic stimulus plans for 2009. 

There is a possibility of a benign scenario with real linkage of problem-solving, and I think Barack Obama has the sort of intellectual curiosity and mindset to be able to see things in such a comprehensive context. 

In his capacity as chair of the Senate Subcommittee on European Affairs, Obama was not particularly active. Moreover, with a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress, some commentators believe a more protectionist America is a distinct possibility. Don’t these indicators augur poorly for an improvement in EU-US relations? 

Well, on the first point, I think the reason that he didn’t call more meetings of the subcommittee was that he was campaigning to be president of the United States – a pretty ready explanation. 

On the second point, if you look at the platform of the Democratic party which they approved in their Denver convention, there’s a very strong passage there on the European Union, and this, to be fair, is in contrast with the Republican platform, where they talk about “working with our friends in Europe” but never mention the EU. 

The fact that the Democratic platform mentions the EU in a very strong fashion is a good sign, not just for the EU, but for Obama’s approach to multilateralism in general, indicating that he is prepared to recognise and work with mature multinational institutions. 

It is important that the US not head in the direction of seeking “a la carte” coalitions for particular problems. He needs to work to the get the maximum benefit out of existing institutional relationships, whether that be with the EU, UN, IMF or World Bank. 

What can Obama learn from Europe and what can, conversely, can Europe learn from the US? 

I think Obama can see in the EU the benefit of pooling sovereignty. The reality is, even for a big country like the US, some of the problems that beset it are simply too big to tackle on its own. Europeans learned that long ago. 

There is a resistance in the US to the idea that sovereignty can in any way be shared, many people only see international commitment as a minus, and don’t recognise the fact that by pooling sovereignty you can increase sovereignty. 

The other important thing to learn from Europe is the value of a body like the European Commission, which is a full-time motor of integration. Meetings like the G8 are essentially meetings of part-timers – all the participants have another job. The same could even be said of the European Council. 

For the Commission, unlike the Council, managing the EU is a full-time job, and I think global problems are so serious now that they need full time, 24/7 attention. We need to build up institutions that can provide us, not with decisions, but with well worked-up proposals. 

As for what we can learn from the US, the first thing you have to see is the invincible optimism of Americans. Even during this time of economic crisis, where banks have lost all confidence in each other, there is a sense that whatever the problem is, we can solve it. 

Hand-wringing is something that you just don’t see in the United States. American can-do spirit will be very important in solving the many global issues we are currently faced with. 

However, I think Americans need to learn, in turn, that in the area of climate change, for example, optimism on its own won’t solve the problem. We need to create an incentive structure that makes people put money into energy conservation, into R & D on clean energy sources. 

On the subject of climate change, EURACTIV has been asking transatlantic experts whether Obama can outgreen Europe. What is your assessment? 

I hope Obama aims to outgreen Europe, and if he does, we’d be happy to see an EU-US competition in that direction. 

I think, however, it’s going to be quite a difficult task. Unlike Europe, the US has huge resources of coal, their reserves are enormous, and we haven’t yet developed a technology for using coal that doesn’t involve very substantial emissions of CO2. 

The reason this will prove difficult for Obama is that cap-and-trade policies will fall more heavily on a coal-based economy than a gas or oil-based economy. I

 think the political will is there in the US to create a strong green agenda, but I’m not yet convinced that the popular will is, and getting popular support for strong green policies is going to be difficult given the current state of the US economy. 

Beyond tackling the economic crisis and climate change, what will be the priorities in transatlantic relations? On which issues can Obama expect to find European support, and where, in contrast, is conflict likely to arise? 

We [at the European Commission ] will have a few priorities of our own that we want to see the new administration tackle. For example, we don’t want this system requiring that all containers destined for the US be screened at our expense in Europe, when the Americans are not prepared to screen containers going in the opposite direction. 

This legislation would come into effect in 2012, and would be extremely costly for European exporters to the US, and this cost would have to be borne by us. There’s no reciprocity here. 

Another thing we’d be looking for from the Obama administration is an injection of urgency into the world trade round. President Bush sincerely wanted a world trade deal, but didn’t succeed in getting one, despite trying very hard. 

The Americans basically don’t want to put a tighter cap on their agricultural subsidies unless they get guarantees that the Indian agricultural market will be opened up to US exports. 

I’m not so sure how realistic American expectations are here. India has a huge subsistence farming sector and they’re fearful that those farmers will be put out of work with no alternative employment available to them, just to satisfy American senators from the US “corn belt” who want any agreement to contain a quid for every quo. 

I don’t think that a world trade round should be looked at in such a mercantilist way. The truth is that without a world trade round, we have a serious risk of reversion to protectionism. 

I think the administration would be better off using its political capital to get a big trade deal through – one big global deal – rather than having to see that capital diminished with an endless succession of bilateral agreements. 

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